Meet the hot new buzzword in wellness: adaptogens. Although adaptogens have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, they’re having a moment in natural health circles right now, including as a way to keep skin looking luminous. If, like most of us, you’re feeling stressed — and your skin is showing it — adaptogens could be the answer.
OK, so what’s an adaptogen?
Adaptogens are herbs that reduce fatigue and the toxic effects of stress. They’re called adaptogens because they adapt to what the body needs, “regulating the body rather than pushing it in one direction or the other,” explains Alan Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist in New York City and the author of Radiant Skin From the Inside Out. For example, Dattner continues, “some people need ginseng because their energy is down, while others need it because they’re too fired up to go to sleep.”
The term adaptogen was coined way back in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev, a Soviet pharmacologist. According to Lazarev, an adaptogen must not only regulate the body’s response to stress, but its effects must also be beneficial to the body’s overall well-being and nontoxic even with long-term use.
Since the 1940s, thousands of studies have been done on adaptogens, primarily in the Soviet Union, Korea and China. Eleuthero (a.k.a Siberian ginseng), for example, has been found to increase the lifespan of single-cell animals, while rhodiola (a.k.a Arctic root) has been shown to reduce perceived fatigue in humans.
That said, adaptogens have not been approved for use by the FDA, and some question the methodology of the studies that have been done on the subject. However, others point to the long history of using adaptogenic remedies in the Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions and argue that the studies, if not definitively conclusive, are strongly suggestive.
Adaptogens are purported to work by normalizing the adrenal system. And “since skin rashes can often be traced back to a hyper- or hypoadrenaline condition,” according to herbalist Michael Forman, a doctor of Oriental medicine in Miami, “they can also benefit the skin.”
Dattner agrees: “I do a lot of treatment of the digestive system in order to treat skin disorders. Licorice, for example, calms the digestive system and slows the breakdown of cortisone, acting as an anti-inflammatory,” which may help with skin irritations and rashes.
In addition, adaptogens are thought to slow the appearance of aging. “Eleuthero has antioxidant properties that may help delay skin aging by preventing free-radical damage to the skin,” notes Joe Feuerstein, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. Likewise, he continues, “angelica may have estrogen-like effects on skin to keep it looking youthful.”
Just plain stressed and exhausted? If so, your appearance — including your skin — will show it. However, “if you get a boost from adaptogens like ginseng or maca,” says Dattner, “you’ll give your skin a boost as well.”
Forman recommends taking herbs in a high-quality liquid concentrate with water rather than using them topically. And while incorporating adaptogens into the diet may be beneficial, says Feuerstein, “to get to clinically meaningful doses, I use pharmaceutical-grade herbal preparations.”
According to Forman, “ashwagandha, ginseng and eleuthero are the three most powerful regulators of adrenal activity and can be used long or short term to address skin conditions,” but there are many other adaptogens as well. Want to try them for yourself? Consult with a doctor or herbalist who can prescribe the appropriate herbs and dosages for you.
READERS—Ready to try adaptogens? Lucky for you, some of our favorite beauty products already have it. Keep scrolling to discover skin and hair care products with adaptogens.
Find it in: Sjal Mineral Kalla Energy Tonic
Sjal Mineral Kalla Energy Tonic hydrates and protects the skin. Gold provides anti-microbial actions as it soothes inflammation and encourages immunity. Arctic rose hydrates, cools and calms the skin, Siberian ginseng protects against cell damage and a hydrating complex works to boost hydration levels by up to 300%.
Find it in: HUM Nutrition Big Chill™
This daily supplement is designed to calm your nerves and relieve your daily stress. Powered by rhodiola rosea root extract harvested from the highest altitudes and coldest areas of Europe and Asia, these soft-gel pills increase your body’s capacity to adapt to stress, which in turn allows you to maintain focus and keep a calm head during pressure. It also keeps stress-induced breakouts and premature signs of aging at bay.
Find it in: Alterna Bamboo Volume Abundant Volume Shampoo
This volumizing shampoo gently cleanses dirt, oil and product buildup as it lifts and thickens the appearance of limp locks. Strengthening organic bamboo extract blends with phytonutrient-rich organic maca root to hydrate and revitalize limp and lifeless strands. Advanced Color Hold Technology ensures your hair stays true to its color while feeling moisturized, bouncy and voluminous.
Find it in: Bioelements Crucial Moisture
This nutrient-rich moisturizer instantly relieves dryness as it reduces fine lines and wrinkles, leading to a more youthful appearance. Power-packed with healing Bioelements Adaptogens, aromatherapist oils and high-speed hydrators, Crucial Moisture helps maintain your skin’s water-to-oil balance, keeping it soft, moist and young-looking. Free of artificial colorants, synthetic fragrance and animal by-products, this moisturizer is safe to use on all skin types.
This facial mask soothes and revitalizes tired, dry and dull skin. Formulated with nutrient-rich ingredients, it eliminates toxins as it restores your natural glow in only 10 to 20 minutes. Matcha green tea powder nourishes and repairs skin cells with vitamins C and E, while goji berry extract reduces irritation and minimizes sun damage that leads to wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin.
This gentle exfoliating peel sloughs away dead and dull skin cells to smooth, soothe and brighten your complexion. Featuring licorice root and a natural hydroquinone complex, this peel lightens brown spots and acne scars and brightens skin for an even, luminous glow. It also promotes cell regeneration and boosts collagen production, softening the depth of fine lines and wrinkles.
This cleansing mask purifies and invigorates dull, dehydrated skin to leave it feeling soft, supple and renewed. Naturally astringent lemon, tangerine and grapefruit oils tone and brighten the complexion. Reishi mushroom extract fights the signs of aging while aloe vera gel calms redness and inflammation.